Medium by Charles Payseur
Today we have a surprise! A new Superhero story from our Superhero Season. Medium by Charles Payseur is one of the original short stories we are publishing in our Quarterly Almanac. Medium is a powerful superhero tale about a young man who can channel and use the energies of ghosts, eventually learning about his powers. Enjoy!
GET UP. THE VOICE IS familiar but far away, muffled. It takes me a minute to realize that’s because I was just knocked back about two hundred feet into a brick wall.
Get up, dammit. This isn’t the time for a nap. The voice is male, angry, and loud enough to compete with the buzzing that clogs my senses.
“Just five more minutes, Mom,” I say, and manage a weak smile. The air is thick with crushed mortar and dust. Bits of brick litter the ground around me, and the world looks like it’s been shattered into a hundred pieces.
Great. They’re up there dying and you’re back here cracking jokes. That gets my attention, and the world pieces itself back together as my vision clears. Not much to go on, though. Tall, brick buildings and cars parked along the side of the street. No one driving. Everything looks empty.
“What happened?” I ask, slowly checking myself over for injuries. Somehow I don’t seem hurt, but I wait for a reply.
Bastard knocked you back with that blaster thing of his. Nearly had you, too, but you got up a shield in time and got sent for a ride instead.
“How’d I survive the impact?” I’m not one of the durables, like Ferrous or Trist. They can go toe to toe with alien giants, with villains ‘roiding out on Serum, get punched through a thousand brick walls and keep coming back. Not me. I’ve been knocked out dozens of times, to the point that I’m worried I’ll end up like an NFL linebacker after a few hundred concussions.
Pure dumb luck. Look where you landed. I look around and see a sign: St. Francis Pediatric Hospital. You must have reached out on instinct, or else you’re more passive than I thought.
That’s when I notice the hands. Small, cold hands reaching out from the bricks. They’re bluish in color, like something pulled up from icy water. They cradle me, keep me from falling. Ghosts.
“What happened to the others?” I ask, and Reagan, my old mentor, the one who first taught me how to use my gifts, finally manifests at my shoulder. Dead, of course. Had been that way ever since the same accident that gave me my powers killed him. He had been designing a device to communicate with the dead, and I had been a student at the university crazy enough to give him grant money to build it. One explosion later and we were stuck with each other. Possibly forever.
Still fighting, but it’s moved on from here. Jumpstart must have ‘ported them to the park, got them clear of civilians.
You could say thank you, you know? a voice says from beside me and I look to see a small face peering out from the wall. A small hand is tugging at the elbow of my sleeve. We did just save your life.
I freeze. I know, on some level, that I must have called them here, these ghosts. Dozens from the feel of it. All children, all stuck behind in this place where they died. I must have called to them as I was falling. I feel sick, my stomach knotting, threatening to erupt.
We don’t have time for this. Just take them and let’s get back to the fight. They need you.
Reagan always knows what to say. Everything seems so simple when he talks, when he tells me what to do. They need me. My team, the Protectors. They must still be battling Mayhem. The energy manipulator had never been much of a problem before. Trist had taken him out herself a couple times. But somehow he had created or found or was given a device that greatly magnified his powers, made him a threat we could only take on as a team.
Are you even listening? the child ghost says. Hello? Earth to super-dude.
I reach out my hand and all the ghosts come rushing forward, little girls and boys like a flood that pours into me. I cringe, never able to completely shut them out. The one who had spoken is Molly—she died of bone cancer. She wants to go home, wants to play with her dog, Q, again. She’s a fan of Star Trek.
Sometime soon would be nice, Reagan says. You full?
I nod. Even with the smaller spirit energies I’ve recharged and then some, straining my capacity to hold it all. But I’ll get a chance to unleash it soon. They don’t call me Medium for nothing.
I forget who I am sometimes, who I’m supposed to be. Reagan is always there to pull me back, to ground me, but sometimes I don’t think I want to be that person he says I am. Sometimes I think there must be a different way.
Look at you, complaining about being a hero. Millions of people want exactly what you have. Hell, you wanted what you have, before. You’d walk around with those Power Society trading cards in your pocket. You went to conventions, watched all the shows. And now you’ve made it, so what’s there to complain about?
I don’t know how Reagan knows all that about me, because I never told him, but it must have to do with my powers. I can see ghosts, can absorb them, channel them into anything I can think of. But I think it means that ghosts can see into me as well. At least, Reagan can.
You’re goddamn right I can. And that’s a good thing, too, because without me you never would have learned to be a hero. I’m the one that knew the science, that knew what you were capable of. Without me you would have ended up a government test subject pumped full of so many drugs you wouldn’t know a ghost from a hamburger.
I don’t think I’d mind it all as much, only I know the ghosts don’t really want to be channeled. They don’t want me using them to break down doors, to tie up villains in strands of ectoplasmic energy. They lose themselves in me, in the great wash of other ghosts I’ve absorbed. I think they might still be in there, all of them, but there’s so many I can’t hear any singular voice any more. They’re just a vague noise I have to ignore in order to do what I do.
And most of the time that’s easy enough.
It’s more than just “easy enough”—it is vital. You can’t be listening to every Tom, Dick, and Harry you suck up. They’re fuel, and you save lives, stop villains. You’re a hero. Millions look up to you. You’re finally what you wanted to be.
It gets hard to deal with real people, living people. Despite being a member of the Protectors, I feel like I don’t fit in. Ferrous can turn into a living metal, can punch her way through solid rock, become liquid at will, and is the leader of the team. Trist is some sort of immortal, regenerates almost instantly. Jumpstart can teleport himself and others. Firelight uses his mind to manipulate flames, can even use it to fly. I think there must be some price they pay for their gifts, some struggle. For
me, I just fell into it, just got lucky, and… and now I channel the dead into energy lassos and spectral blasts.
Living the dream.
The park is farther away than I thought, but I’m flying now, channeling the ghosts I picked up at the hospital into propulsion, lift, drive. I’m burning through them, and if I could tune them in, hear them beyond the dull buzzing always in my head, I’d say they were screaming.
Looks like they’ve taken out half the park, Reagan says, and I nod. The destruction is massive, trees uprooted and tossed at random, some still smoldering with fire. The noise of the battle is audible now, the rushing sound of Firelight’s flames, of Jumpstart’s ‘porting. They’re fighting around a jungle gym, Ferrous trying to use a metal slide to wrap around Mayhem, but the villain simply blasts it away.
Give him hell. Reagan sounds happy, and I’ve stopped wondering so much if that’s what I am to the ghosts I absorb, just a hell to endure. I point and unleash a beam of concentrated energy that blasts at Mayhem, knocking him back.
“Good to have you back,” Firelight says, circling up to me. I want to think he’s relieved, but I can’t shake the feeling that the rest of the team is wary of me, almost afraid. Reagan says I don’t need to be liked, that I don’t need friends, that all I need is him, but sometimes… I push the thoughts away, stay silent as I keep up with the attack and Firelight adds his own touch, circling a pillar of flames around my spectral energy.
Good to be back, Reagan says, but Firelight can’t hear him. I concentrate on the strain of channeling the dead into something effective, destructive. Mayhem falls back a step, then there’s a sound like a thousand windows shattering and I’m flung, spiraling earthward. It seems to take forever.
I blink. The voices in my head have stopped, except for one. Molly.
Now a good time to talk?
No, I think as loud as I can. I can’t. All you are is fuel for my powers, for doing good. That’s what Reagan always says.
But Reagan doesn’t know everything. He doesn’t care about us. Why would he? You’ll never channel him.
The words are barbs that stick into my mind, refusing to pull free.
Snap out of it! Reagan is screaming at me and I hadn’t noticed. Must have been hit harder than I thought. And I’m still falling, ground so close I can almost taste it.
I channel and throw up a cushion beneath me, turn and do the same for Firelight, who looks senseless from the blast. We land softly, and Molly’s voice fades into the din as the breath is knocked from me as I land. Even with my powers it’s a hard fall and I feel my teeth jar together and then I’m on the soft grass.
I look over and see Firelight isn’t moving, and the others all seem stunned by the blast. Only Mayhem is moving, walking toward Trist’s fallen form.
I struggle to my feet and gather all the power in me, let it loose in a wall of energy. I’m a sieve, a breach into another realm, and I pour as much as I can into creating a cage around Mayhem. I need to contain him, buy us time. Bonds of energy press down on the bubble of his protective shield. A moment later and I tie it off, then rush to Firelight’s side.
He coughs as I roll him onto his back.
“Thanks for the assist,” he says between ragged breaths.
We have to act now, Reagan says into my ear. We have to do something.
“Like what?” I hiss the question and hope that Firelight doesn’t hear. The others are all getting to their feet, staring at where Mayhem is wrapped in bands of energy. It won’t hold long.
You saw the cemetery on the way in. It’s not far. You saw what happened before. You had him on the ropes. If you pull enough power, you can do it, be the hero, save the day.
You can’t ignore us forever, you know. I wince as Molly’s voice rises again. I don’t want to hear her. Mayhem I can face, and worse villains yet, but Molly makes me uncomfortable, afraid.
“Jumpstart,” I cry out, quieting the voices. The teleporter is in front of me a moment later, dark skin covered in a sheen of sweat and dirt. He’s breathing hard, casts a worried glance at Firelight, who is still coughing on the ground. The two are close, and I know he wants to stay, but the entire team is reaching their limits, and we have to push more.
“Can you get me to the cemetery two blocks from here?” He nods, and in a flash of light, a cloud of dark smoke, we’re somewhere else. My stomach lurches, like every ‘port, but I keep my footing and gaze out at the crowd of ghosts around us.
I forget who I used to be, sometimes, before all of this. Lonely, I think. I remember being lonely, probably a little sad. I remember being in college and wondering what the hell the point was. There was nothing I wanted to do, nothing that was important. I couldn’t fail, but that didn’t mean I could really win.
Until the accident. I hadn’t even known Reagan, hadn’t had a class with him or anything. I was just walking through the building, taking a shortcut to my next class, when the wall had exploded, and everything had changed.
That’s when you became a hero. Don’t forget that. You do good for people.
I had always wanted to be special, to be something. I’d look at the faces of the heroes on the Power Society. Lightning Woman and the Whisper and Power Punch and the Finality. A whole team who I wanted so badly to be, who seemed so like me. All of them had been picked on before getting their powers. All of them had overcome that, had proven themselves as heroes.
Doesn’t sound so hard to me, Molly says.
What would you know? Heroes have to bleed, have to fight, have to get up again and again. Reagan is angry, intense.
So? You think you deserve a prize for doing your job? So you fight against some villains. So what. You won’t help us. You can help us and you choose not to.
I’ve never been very good at knowing what to do. That’s for Reagan. He tells me where to go and what to do. He’s so sure of himself, where I’m so full of doubts. And so I let him keep talking, keep defending the actions I’m not so sure of.
He’s already helping. He’s stopping villains. It’s what heroes do. Anything more you have to do on your own. Take some personal responsibility. It’s not his fault you’re dead.
No, but it’s not our fault either.
I want to run away, to shut them all out of my head. I only wanted to have powers, to fight villains. Why is it so complicated?
“This where you need to be?” Jumpstart asks, looking around. To him it must look empty, not crowded with ghosts. Cemeteries are always full. Wherever the dead are housed, or where they died. I nod.
More than enough. I can almost feel Reagan licking his lips. I normally stay away from cemeteries, because there are so many, so many faces staring at me. Normally I take them from homes or hospitals. It’s like exorcising them, that way, like doing a service, I tell myself.
I walk forward, and the dead must sense what I am, because they move to meet me.
Now hurry up and take as many as you can hold. You need enough power to take out Mayhem for good.
I put my hands in front of me, take a deep breath. I’ve never tried to take this many. There are over a hundred ghosts in the cemetery, all reaching toward me with cold, blue hands.
Is this what you want? Molly’s voice is a whisper in my head. I pause.
Of course this is what you want. What you’ve always wanted.
Of course this is what I want. It has to be. Reagan can see me, can see inside my head. He must know.
That’s right. And I’ve always looked out for you. Always protected you.
Has he? He might be able to see into you, but you can see into him just as easily. Into any of us. Open your eyes. Stop being such a Bakula about it and see what’s in front of you.
What a load of—
But she’s right. I can see inside her, can see every memory, every broken promise and spent hope. I can see the way she looked to the stars and saw a future beyond the bed she was confined to. Beyond the chains I’ve wrapped her in. But I’ve never looked at Reagan, never really seen him. Why would I, when he always told me everything? When it seemed like he had nothing to hide.
What are you doing? Take them.
I look through him, and his past spreads out in my mind. Every lust, every dark secret. I see him working in the lab, that day at the university. I see the machinery powering up, the machinery he’s told everyone is to communicate with the dead, to reunite people with their loved ones. Only…
“You meant for it to happen,” I say. I see him setting the controls, feel his ache for power. Power this would give him. “It was designed to do this, to make someone able to channel the dead into…”
Into batteries. Into powers.
You think you were the only one who wanted a piece of the action? Who wanted a ticket to the big leagues? It should have been me to get those powers. It should have been me to—
I can’t look at him. I can’t… I turn away, and realize that I’m surrounded, that the ghosts have crept closer still and are all around us, hazy outlines like a thousand burning candles banishing every place I can think to hide. I see them, can’t stop the deluge of images, feelings—lifetimes come pouring into me. I stagger under their weight.
Help us, one of the ghosts in front says, an old woman who looks like she died a hundred years ago and never stopped aging.
“How?” I hear myself ask. I clap a hand over my mouth. Not once have I asked that before. The old woman smiles.
You just have to ask. Ask and we’ll give you as much as we can. But you’ll have to give us something back.
He’ll do nothing of the sort. He doesn’t need to ask. Get your damn hands away from him. Come on, kid, get in the game. They need you back there. He’s trying to gloss over what I’ve seen, what he’s said, but the words don’t hit as hard as they might have. I’m stuck. I can’t just take these ghosts.
“What do you need from me?” I hear myself asking.
To come back. To listen. We each have our own price, and you’ll have to pay them all.
We don’t have time for this. Come on, kid. Lives are on the line. Be a hero, dammit.
“And what if what you offer isn’t enough?” I ask, and I know how it sounds. I feel sick, but I continue. “What if I need more?” I’m not sure I can pay all their prices. But I know that I can’t keep on taking without trying to give something back.
You won’t. You just need to be smarter, need to be better with it. Don’t treat your power likes it’s a well that will never dry up. The old woman’s eyes seem to know me. Have they been waiting this long to speak, for me to listen?
“But it’s already so hard.”
Stop talking to her. Stop it right now. Listen to me. If you don’t you’ll be sorry. I’ll make you pay for ignoring me.
I’ve never heard Reagan this way, and I look, see a wild hate in his eyes. Was it always there, and I just never noticed?
It should be hard. Power isn’t meant to be easy, or free. Not being a villain isn’t enough to call yourself a hero. You have to be better. You have to actually help people, and that’s always hard.
If you do this I’m never helping you again. I’ll ruin you. I’ll get back at you somehow. I’ll hurt all those that you love, I’ll make it so you can’t sleep, can’t rest. I’ll hound you and haunt you. Just take them now and do what I say.
“Can I please have some of your power? I’ll come back. I promise. I’ll pay what you ask.”
The woman nods, and Reagan’s outline wavers with rage. And also… fear, like he believes if I’m not listening to his voice I’ll take him like I’ve taken all those he told me to. He flees, his spectral trace a line directly away from me, as fast and as far as he can manage.
He shouldn’t have been afraid. After listening to him for so long the last thing I want is him actually inside my head. I let him go, know that I’ll probably regret it, that he will probably find a way to hurt me, but there are people who need my help.
I feel alone without him there, without his voice. I feel vulnerable. But the woman steps forward and I see such warmth in her eyes. She reaches forward and I take her hand and I feel the power flowing into me, so much different than before. And one by one more ghosts come forward until I swear I must be glowing from the energy inside me. Then they stop.
“Will it be enough?” I ask. I want them to tell me yes, to give me the surety that Reagan always did.
They all just look at me.
That’ll be up to you, Molly says in my head. You have to make it count.
“You okay, man?” I hear Jumpstart ask, and I turn to face him. He looks unsettled, perhaps afraid. He knows that I can talk to the dead but he couldn’t have heard or seen any of what they said or did to me. All he has are my reactions to go off of. I manage a weak smile.
“Let’s get back.”
If I try hard enough I can forget what I’ve done. I can close my eyes and pretend that I never hurt anyone that didn’t deserve it, that I didn’t use anyone I didn’t have to. That it wasn’t my fault because someone else was supposed to have told me I was doing something wrong.
You’d really blame us for what you did to us? Molly isn’t impressed. For one so young she saw a lot before she died. And she watched a lot of Star Trek.
If you can’t find it within yourself to stand up and tell the truth… she tells me.
I wish there was a way to know what was truth and what wasn’t. I wish there was some way to be sure that I was doing the right thing. Sometimes I just wish that Reagan was back and I didn’t have to do so much, to try so hard.
Hello, it’s supposed to be hard. You’ve had it easy enough, so don’t talk to me about wanting it easy. You think I wanted to die? You think I wanted you to suck me in without a thought?
I wish I could go back and change it all. I wish I could just make it better. Then maybe I wouldn’t hear the voices. I can, now, all of them, all the ghosts I channeled. They all need something from me, and I owe so much. I think sometimes the silence would be better.
Refusing to make a decision is still a decision. Standing on the sidelines is still playing the game. What would Picard do?
I have a feeling I’ll find out.
Mayhem is breaking free when we return. I can feel the energy flowing through me and it feels about the same as I had before, after the hospital. Whatever I did back in the cemetery, it has given me less power per ghost. But then, I don’t feel them in my head like the others I absorbed.
It’s what they were willing to give. Molly is loud in my ear. Don’t complain about it. You’re still the one with the power.
I join Ferrous and Trist and Firelight where they are standing, devising a plan. It’s Mayhem’s device we need to defeat, but the thing seems to include some sort of force field. Whenever we attack we hit a bubble that repels us. Though I had knocked him back, I hadn’t breached the bubble. We could overwhelm it. I could try hitting him again, a sustained blast. It’s what Reagan would have suggested. Wear him down with sheer strength. But I can tell I don’t have the power for it.
You have to be smarter now. Think.
I ask if Jumpstart can ‘port inside the bubble, but he shake his head. Tried and failed. The bubble didn’t extend out far enough. Firelight can’t cook him, because the force field keeps out heat.
Aren’t you listening to a thing I say? Molly asks.
We need a way around the force field. If I could hit his device directly I could take it out. I know it.
“Wait,” I say. “Does the force field go all the way around him? Like, into the ground?” They all look at me a moment, as if surprised I’m still talking. It’s probably the most I’ve said in a month. Normally it’s Reagan that does the talking, the planning, even though no one can hear him but me.
The team confers. No one’s sure, but we’re out of time. There’s a shockwave as my spectral restraints tear and snap and Mayhem is free again. Ferrous and Trist rush forward. Jumpstart disappears in a puff of smoke, and Firelight burns his way into the sky. I walk forward.
Figured it out, yet? Molly asks.
I stop a short distance away. Mayhem has his hands full with the rest of the team, but I don’t want to be hit again. I kneel, push my hands against the ground, and send out a ribbon of energy down. It’s a thought, at least. Mayhem is standing. So the bubble must not penetrate the ground. Which means that maybe…
I feel the ribbon of energy snake up through the soil and coil into the bubble surrounding Mayhem. I smile, and the spectral energy shoots to the device on his chest. With a heave it tears free, pulls back down to the ground, where it breaks. The action stops and I look up to see Mayhem’s eyes go wide. Ferrous and Trist both close in around him.
Not bad, redshirt. Molly almost sounds impressed, but she must have figured it out long before I did. I have a lot of work ahead of me.
But I don’t think I’ll be missing Reagan.
“I’m going to be a lot better than not bad, kid.” If I can figure out how.
The team returns, surrounds me, all reaching forward to clap me on the back. It’s nearly strange, this moment of purely human contact, but I feel more solid for it. More present.
“That was some trick,” Ferrous says, her gaze searching. Perhaps she’s already noticed a difference, a change in me. Perhaps she suspects alien parasites or mind control rays or…something. I take a breath. Perhaps she’s just glad we’ve won.
“I had a lot of help,” I say, looking around. The team is all smiles, and we set out to do damage control, to set right what we can. And in my mind I thank Molly and every other ghost I’ve taken, remind myself I’ll still have to return to the cemetery when this is done, to settle my debts.
It won’t be more than you can pay, Molly says.
I wonder how it will work from now on. But it will. We’ll find a way.
These are the voyages of Medium and Ghost Girl. Our mission—
A quarterly collection of awesome, selected and edited by The Book Smugglers
Collecting original short fiction, essays, reviews, and reprints from diverse and powerful voices in speculative fiction, THE BOOK SMUGGLERS’ QUARTERLY ALMANAC is essential for any SFF fan.
IN THIS VOLUME (JUNE 2016): Tansy Rayner Roberts, John Chu, Genevieve Valentine, Susan Jane Bigelow, Sunil Patel, Charles Payseur, Roshani Chokshi, Jay Edidin, Ana Grilo, and Thea James.
THE BOOK SMUGGLERS’ QUARTERLY ALMANAC: Volume I – The TOC
- Introduction – The Book Smugglers • Essay
- Cookie Cutter Superhero – Tansy Rayner Roberts • Story
- Ninefox Gambit – Thea James • Review
- How to Piss Off A Failed Super-Soldier – John Chu • Story
- The Invisible Woman – Genevieve Valentine • Essay
- Medium – Charles Payseur • Story
- Where To Start With The X-Men – Jay Edidin • Essay
- Crimson Cadet – Susan Jane Bigelow • Story
- Captain America vs. Iron Man vs. Batman vs. Superman – Sunil Patel • Essay
- The Geek Feminist Revolution – Ana Grilo • Review
- On the Smugglers’ Radar – The Book Smugglers • List
- The Vishakanya’s Choice – Roshani Chokshi • Story
- Learn to Love Your Mary Sue – Carlie St. George • Essay
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